The Peculiar Draw of 11/11

The Peculiar Draw of 11/11

By Sean Braswell

Spinal Tap at CBGB's in New York City on May 6, 1984.
SourceEbet Roberts/Getty


Take a tip from Spinal Tap and marvel at the special significance of the mystical number 11.

By Sean Braswell

“These go to 11.”

Rock legend Nigel Tufnel’s befuddled insistence that his amplifier’s highest setting of 11 is more powerful than conventional 10-digit dials has become a ubiquitous trope in the 30 years since its birth in Rob Reiner’s fictional “rockumentary” This is Spinal Tap (1984). The line, from an impeccably improvised scene in a mostly unscripted film, has spawned a cottage industry of T-shirts and memorabilia, inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, not to mention an inside joke guaranteed to deliver a chuckle each time the millions of Tap fans encounter each other, a dial, or just the number itself. In homage to the scene, the BBC’s online iPlayer’s volume setting even goes, yes, to 11.

Eleven is all around if you choose to see it or, some would say, if it chooses you.

But did Nigel tap into something deeper? This Nov. 11, as millions around the world celebrate Veterans Day or Remembrance Day with their own special roots in the singular number, it seems appropriate to take a glance at how many things really do go to 11.

Eleven is all around if you choose to see it or, some would say, if it chooses you. From the moment our ancient ancestors ran out of digits for counting on their hands, a special relationship was formed with the number that was one more. Rather fittingly, in Nigel’s native tongue, the word “eleven” is derived from the Old English word “endleofan,” meaning “one left” as in one left over after you take away 10.

Eleven can also signify “one short” depending on where you sit, including on Sunday. If you’re a Christian, the number tends to be associated with incompleteness or disorder, falling shy of the holy 12 — the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles. The Israelites’ 40-year journey across the desert was supposed to take 11 days. And, though 11 operatives may have been ideal for Danny Ocean, the Bible (in Acts 1:21-26) is quick to appoint a replacement for Judas to return the dwindled “Eleven” apostles back to full strength.

More than just a coincidence, such events are the tip of an enormous, 11-sided cosmic iceberg.

However, if you’re a fan of several team sports — from soccer and field hockey to football and cricket — 11 is synonymous with a full side. Somewhere between the pew and the La-Z-Boy on Sunday, the average god-fearing NFL fan swaps the sacred completeness of 12 for the unholy spectacle of 11-on-11 gladiator combat. Walter Camp, a Yale football player and the “Father of American Football,” is credited with persuading colleges to trim teams from 15 to 11 players in 1880 in order to reduce the chaos on the field, but also to improve the chances of faculty members allowing players to travel for road games. Incidentally, according to one study, 11 is also the number of minutes of actual football (i.e., the amount of time the ball is in play) played during the average NFL game.

Even if you’re not a history buff, you probably know the reason that Veterans Day and Remembrance Day are celebrated on Nov. 11 is that the armistice ending World War I took place on that date in 1918. The date itself was the product of events and not deliberately chosen, but once the cease-fire agreement was signed by military officials on the French frontline around 5 o’clock that morning, having hostilities officially cease at 11 o’clock seemed both symbolically appropriate and practically expedient given the need to get the word out about the agreement through the war’s battle lines.

Men of U.S. 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice.

The U.S. 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrates the news of the WWI armistice.

You likely are a history buff, or perhaps a meteorologist, however, if you know about the “Great Blue Norther” that occurred seven years earlier on Nov. 11, 1911. That day the Midwestern U.S. experienced an unprecedented temperature drop. In Oklahoma City, the daytime temperature reached a record high of 83 degrees before plummeting to a record low of 17 by midnight — a plunge that has not been equaled since.

Such events are more than just a coincidence to some; they are the tip of an enormous, 11-sided cosmic iceberg. Many occultists, numerologists and conspiracy theorists believe that the so-called “11:11 phenomenon” is, as famed psychic Uri Geller puts it, “the pre-encoded trigger and the key to the mysteries of the universe and beyond.” But, since the invention of the digital clock, even those of us who do not have such a mystical connection to the number have observed how remarkably often we seemingly encounter 11:11 when we look at our timepieces (one of the reasons television star Ellen DeGeneres named her recording label ”eleveneleven”).

Scientists, on the other hand, generally consider this phenomenon under another name, apophenia, the human tendency to see a meaning or pattern in random events or configurations, from the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast to the thousands of people across the globe who rushed for the altar a few years ago on 11.11.11. And, according to Swiss neuropsychologist and apophenia expert Peter Brugger, some people are more prone than others to being overwhelmed by the meaningfulness of coincidence. “Such conspicuous patterns of repeating digits have a power of their own,” Brugger tells OZY, “[just] like everyday coincidences, they strike those most who tend to be more apophenic than others.”

And guess what? These universes go to 11.

So is it just human nature that Tufnel is tapping into when he insists that amp dials that go to 11 are “very special,” and not just arbitrary? Well, if recent developments in theoretical physics are correct, 11 could have real significance outside the realm of our everyday experiences.

For years, physicists working on various string theories toward a unified “theory of everything” had postulated that spacetime was 10-dimensional. The latest version of string theory, “M-theory,” designed to unite and supersede prior theories, proposes an infinite number of universes.

And guess what? These universes go to 11.

As Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, explains, “The highest dimension is 11. You cannot go beyond 11 because universes become unstable beyond 11.”

Why is a 10-dimensional world no longer sufficient to encompass everything? It’s complicated. But the short answer as to why physicists are so excited by M-theory is that, as Nigel would say, “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?”